A few nights ago, while reading Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I reached the chapter in which she analyzes the most extreme rules for women, marriage, and sex in the Bible.
A woman could be forced to marry her rapist. A woman could be executed if she claimed to be raped within city limits, but no one heard her screaming. A woman could be one of many wives. A woman could be stoned to death for adultery. A woman could be killed if she was not a virgin on her wedding night. And more.
Not only were women required to be submissive to their fathers and their husbands, women were property. Women could be bought, sold, and abused.
I felt, at first, as though I was going to vomit. Then, I felt filled with rage. “Women are property?!?! ” I wanted to scream, “THIS is the text we consider the word of God!?!?”
I remembered why I abandoned religion altogether for many years. It was Rachel Held Evans, after all, who said, “I have come to regard with some suspicion those who claim the Bible never troubles them. I can only assume this means they haven’t actually read it.”
People assume that I am pious because I went to divinity school. People assume I am more demure than I am. People assume I am a pushover because I am soft-spoken. The people who know me well, however, know that I am tougher than I look, that I have strong opinions I am not shy to share, that I am a debater at heart. So here’s my argument.
This complicated text, what we call the Bible, is a composite of teachings, laws, letters. It is not cohesive in its genre, nor its message about anything. Every book has been fashioned out of fragments, called codices. Theologians and historians have poured over these excepts for centuries to piece together scripture.
They were as selective in what they included as what they excluded. For instance, many scholars study a text from the same era as the gospels penned by Mary Magdalene or Mary, the mother of Christ. Is the “Gospel of Mary” included in the New Testament? Nope! Because it was written by a woman.
There are threads of Christianity which have vanished. No, scratch that, which have been erased. Eliminated and silenced by patriarchy.
In the gospel of Mary, one of the male apostles speculates that Jesus might actually prefer the company and leadership of women, asking, “Did he intend for us to listen to her?”
Instead, women’s oppression has been shaped by thousands of years of misogyny. Women are hysterical. Women are objects. Women’s bodies can be bought and sold. Women’s beauty remains a commodity. Women aren’t paid equally for the equal work they do. Women’s bodies are dangerous, they need to be regulated by white men. Women cannot decide on their own if they want to be pregnant or not. This is what drove me from the church.
By the time I was twelve years old, I had realized how unfair the Catholic Church’s approach to women’s bodies and female leadership was. I did not want to be a part of a system which viewed women as derivative of men, which viewed women as fundamentally and irrevocably subordinate to men.
I had a sense, then, of something I know now: there is absolutely no reason why men are more equipped to lead or teach or interpret or heal than women. There is simply no reason why God would choose to speak to and elect women to lead more than men. It makes more sense that women – the ones who have to contemplate what it would me to hold and grow life inside of their wombs from the time they are twelve – would be the ones equipped to manage the spiritual formation of communities.
Christianity is complicated in its origins and its translations. The way Christianity was used as a weapon of the empire, of slavery. How indigenous people and their faiths, their ways of life, their communal practices were called “demonic.” How fear-mongering was called evangelism. How faith was used to justify unfathomable violence. How the Bible was used to justify why white people were free citizens and black people were property.
All of this has made me skeptical about religion and its ability to see its own blind spots. It has made me skeptical of the idea that truth is only found in the shadows of white steeples. It has made me deeply skeptical of anything or anyone who says that there is only one way to salvation, that God only loves certain kinds of people and institutions and ways of being.
I could go on. I could write entire books about the ways in which narrowness is not compassionate. About how love matters a hell of a lot more than rules. About how Jesus wrote in the sand and walked around with all the people systems of power declared sub-human. About how rage is what has made earth look a little more like heaven.
And I could write an entire book about this: I believe in a God of both/and. A God of love who transcends all of our expectations about what love can do. A God of neither gender. A God who trusts women with wisdom. A God who cannot be put into a box, who doesn’t speak in black and white, who loves people more than rules, who does not consider people property, who seeks to understand and comfort, not condemn. More on that at some point.
I went to divinity school not for dogma or doctrine or even community. I went because for as long as I can remember, I have been gripped by thoughts of the human condition, by existentialism, by how we can create a more humane world together. The truest way I know how to speak of those things is through spiritual ideas, but not necessarily religious practice.
Recently, on social media, I have seen women of faith share this quote. “How to faithfully celebrate Easter this year. Only women on the zoom call. Call is scheduled before dawn. We speak of only impossible things that would topple the empire.”
My, my, how different the world would be, I think, if the women were in charge. Hold onto your rage, dear sister. My hunch is that your rage might be connected to sadness, to longing, and to love. If it is, then your rage is holy – something you can use to make the world new.